How to Use MyPlate for Healthy Eating

MyPlate balanced nutrition with protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy

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Many of us grew up with the food pyramid as a guide for healthy eating. But the pyramid has given way to MyPlate. Since 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has promoted MyPlate as a plan for how much of each major food group you should eat each day to maintain an optimally balanced diet.

Along with a new shape, the updated USDA symbol for daily food intake has a few key differences from the old food pyramid. By using MyPlate, people can better visualize what food groups they should eat more or less of and what proper portion sizes look like. Plus, new technology on the USDA website allows you to figure out exactly how much of each food group every member of your family should eat.

What is MyPlate?

MyPlate's design is intended to help people more easily understand how much of each type of food they should be eating daily. Recommendations are based on the 2020-2025 edition of Dietary Guidelines for All Americans, created by scientists and published by the USDA every five years.

For the MyPlate graphic, five food groups are displayed on a placemat. Vegetables, fruits, protein, and grains each make up one-quarter of a dinner plate, while a glass symbolizes a portion of dairy products roughly equivalent to the amount of protein or grains. Those sections are meant to symbolize the proportions of each food group to eat at each meal (and everyday generally). Basically, people should eat fruits and veggies for about half of each meal, and consume a balanced mix of protein, grains, and dairy products to round out their diets.

Along with the plate graphic, the website has additional recommendations about what kind of foods are best to eat in each food group:

  • Fruits: Any fruit (fresh, frozen, canned, or dried) or 100% fruit juice counts. At least half of your daily fruit intake should be made up of whole fruits.
  • Vegetables: Any vegetable (fresh, frozen, canned, or dried) or 100% vegetable juice counts. Beans, peas, and lentils are unique: They are counted first as protein; once your daily protein needs are met, they can count as veggies. That means vegetarians meet much of their protein needs through these foods.
  • Protein: Meat and chicken should be lean or low-fat, like 93% ground beef. The best seafood options are higher in beneficial fatty acids (omega-3s) and lower in methylmercury, like salmon and trout.
  • Grains: At least half of your daily intake of starchy foods should be 100% whole grains, like whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice. Refined grains should be fortified or enriched with vitamin B and iron. (Most breakfast cereals and commercially made breads are.)
  • Dairy: Look for low-fat dairy, like milk, yogurt, and reduced-fat cheese. Butter, sour cream, and cream cheese don't count, since they are low in calcium and too high in fat to be considered healthy.

How to Use MyPlate

How much you eat in each food group of the MyPlate plan relates to your daily calorie requirements, which vary depending on age, sex, height and weight, and how active you are. A 2-year-old should get about 1,000 calories in a day, while an active teenager might require 3,200 calories daily.

On the MyPlate website, you can enter your child's (or your own) age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level to create a customized MyPlate plan with an estimated daily calorie target and recommended amounts to eat from each food group. For children ages 1 to 8 years old, you don't need to input their height or weight. For females ages 18 and older, you have an option to indicate whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding, when additional calories are recommended.

From the MyPlate resources page, you can also learn more about each food group, download an app, get a printer-friendly version of your daily targets, collect some recipes, and see some informational videos.

You might be wondering: Where do sweets and treats fit in? According to the latest version of USDA dietary guidelines on which MyPlate is based, kids and adults should limit foods with added sugar (like packaged cookies and even most breakfast cereals) to less than 10% of recommended calories per day each. For an 8-year-old boy getting 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity, that's 160 calories: a single serving (1 cup) of Life cereal, for instance.

Why Not Follow the Food Pyramid?

What was wrong with the food pyramid? Many people thought the original food pyramid, created in 1992, contributed to the current epidemic of adult and childhood obesity. For instance, it recommended up to 11 servings in the "breads" group, an amount that most doctors and dietitians came to feel was excessive, and did not distinguish well between fiber-filled whole grains (like whole wheat bread and brown rice) and refined carbohydrates (like packaged crackers and chips).

A "new" food pyramid, known as MyPyramid, was introduced in 2005. It reduced the recommended amount of daily carbohydrates, increased the suggested amount of fruits and vegetables, and made a point to emphasize the importance of physical activity. However, some people found it hard to visualize portion sizes using the pyramid structure.

MyPlate emerged from a 2010 report of the White House Childhood Obesity Task Force. The Task Force thought MyPyramid needed to be simpler, so people could understand how to best balance their diets "at a glance." Research has since shown that both plans have benefits: People who are aware of either MyPyramid or MyPlate eat more whole grains and leafy green vegetables and fewer sugary or salty foods.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department ofHealth and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. Published December 2020.

  2. United States Department of Agriculture. What is MyPlate?

  3. English J. A review of proposed improvements to the USDA Food Guide. Nutrition Review. Published April 22, 2013.

  4. Schwartz JL, Vernarelli JA. Assessing the public’s comprehension of dietary guidelines: use of MyPyramid or MyPlate is associated with healthier diets among US adultsJ Acad Nutr Diet. 2019;119(3):482-489. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2018.09.012